Sunday, September 18, 2011

The famous chapter 8 of the Ling Shu

Chapter 8 of the Ling Shu (entitled Ben Shen 本 神) is quoted very frequently, especially its famous opening sentence. I would like to comment briefly on that sentence and propose a different translation of it.

The opening sentence of chapter 8 of the Ling Shu is: Fan ci zhi fa, xian bi ben yu shen 凡 刺 之 法 先 必 本 于 神 and the words mean literally “every needling’s method first must be rooted in Shen”. This sentence is usually translated as: “All treatment must be based on the Spirit”. The implication of this sentence is that all treatment must be based on the Spirit (of the patient), whatever interpretation we give to the word “Spirit”.

I propose an alternative translation with two important differences. Firstly, the text uses the word ci which means “to needle”, not “to treat”. If the text had meant to use the term “to treat”, it would have used the word zhi 治which does occur a lot in both the Su Wen and the Ling Shu. Thus, the first difference is that the first half of the sentence is “when needling” rather than “when treating”: this is an extremely important difference.

The second difference is that the “Shen” referred to here may be interpreted as the Shen of the practitioner, not of the patient. Therefore, the whole sentence would mean: “When needling, one must first concentrate one’s mind [Shen]”. If that “Shen” is the Shen of the practitioner, then “Mind” would be a better translation here.

There are other passages in the Nei Jing that would support this view. For example, chapter 4 of the Ling Shu uses the word “shen” to mean the doctor’s skill in palpation and needling. It says: “When pressing on a channel [the doctor is capable of] understanding the disease: this is called shen.”

This different interpretation of the opening sentence of chapter 8 of the Ling Shu is consistent with two factors. Firstly, the Ling Shu is very much an acupuncture text and therefore the reference to concentrating when needling makes sense. Secondly, the advice to concentrate and focus when needling is also found in many places in the Nei Jing. Indeed, the word “shen” is even used occasionally to mean “needling sensation”. Chapter 16 of the Su Wen says: “In Autumn needle the skin and the space between skin and muscles: stop when the needling sensation [shen] arrives.”

There are many passages in both the Ling Shu and Su Wen that stress the importance of concentrating one’s mind when needling. Indeed, chapter 25 of the Su Wen contains a sentence that is almost exactly the same as the opening sentence of the famous chapter 8 of the Ling Shu. In fact, chapter 25 of the Su Wen contains this sentence: “fan ci zhi zhen, bi xian zhi shen” [凡 刺 之 真, 必 先 治 神]. I would translate this so: “For reliable needling, one must first control one’s mind [shen].” Note the rhyming of “zhen” with “shen”.

The English translation of the Su Wen by Li Zhao Guo simply translates this sentence as “The key point for acupuncture is to pay full attention.”1 This interpretation is corroborated by the other paragraphs in that chapter which give advice as to how to practise needling. In fact, it says that the acupuncturist should not be distracted by people around or by any noise.

Unschuld, in his new translation of the Su Wen, translates this sentence as “For all piercing to be reliable, one must first regulate the spirit.”2 This translation would contradict mine but a footnote in the same book reports the interpretation of Wang Bing (the editor of the Nei Jing): “One must concentrate one’s mind and be calm without motion. This is the central point of piercing.”3

The central point that stems from an analysis of the famous opening sentence of chapter 8 of the Ling Shu is how to translate the word “Shen”: in my opinion, the word “Shen” can have many different meanings and only one of them is “Spirit”. Another translation of “Shen” is that of “Mind” which, in my opinion is appropriate in many contexts.

I have mentioned above two possible meanings of “shen” in the Nei Jing, one being the skill of the acupuncturist, the other being the needling sensation. In other passages, “Shen” is closely identified with the Vital Essences of the body: this makes sense given the close integration of body and mind (or spirit) in Chinese medicine. For example, chapter 26 of the Su Wen says: “Blood and Qi are the shen of a person.”4 Chapter 32 of the Ling Shu says: “Shen is the refined Qi of water and grains.”5 Chapter 1 of the Ling Shu says: “Shen is the Upright Qi [Zheng Qi].”6

The next step of this investigation would be to define the nature of “Shen” (Mind or Spirit) in Chinese medicine and how that relates to the ancient Greek or Christian concepts of “Spirit” but this would require a very long enquiry that is beyond the scope of this short piece.

1. Li Zhao Guo (translator) Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine, Library of Chinese Classics, World Publishing Corporation, Xi’an, 2005, p. 335.
2. Unschuld P U and Tessenow H, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen – An Annotated Translation of the Huang Di’s Inner Classic – Basic Questions, Vol. I, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011, p. 428.
3. Ibid., p. 428.
4. 1979 The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine-Simple Questions (Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen), People’s Health Publishing House, Beijing. First published c. 100 BC, p. 168.
5. Tian Dai Hua 2005 Spiritual Axis (Ling Shu Jing), People’s Health Publishing House, Beijing. First published c. 100 BC, p. 77.
6. Ibid., p. 3.


  1. thIS is so wonderful, is the first time i have been able to read it in English. I am indebted to you.